Part I


By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.

- Rabindranath Tagore, "Stray Birds"


The six hoverboards slipped among the trees with the lightning grace of playing cards thrown flat and spinning. The riders ducked and weaved among ice-heavy branches, laughing, knees bent and arms outstretched. In their wake glowed a crystal rain, tiny icicles shaken from the pine needles to fall behind, aflame with moonlight.

Tally felt everything with an icy clarity: the brittle, freezing wind across her bare hands, the shifting gravities that pressed her feet against the hoverboard. She breathed in the forest, tendrils of pine coating her throat and tongue, thick as syrup.

The cold air seemed to make sounds crisper: The loose tail of her dorm jacket cracked like a wind-whipped flag, her grippy shoes squeaked against the hoverboard surface with every turn. Fausto was pumping dance music straight through her skintenna, but that was silent to the world outside. Over its frantic beat Tally heard every twitch of her new monofilament-sheathed muscles.

She squinted against the cold, eyes watering, but the tears made her vision even sharper. Icicles whipped past in glittering streaks, and moonlight silvered the world, like an old, colorless movie come flickering to life.

That was the thing about being a Cutter: Everything was icy now, as if the world were opening her skin. Shay swooped in beside Tally, their fingers brushing for a moment, and flashed a smile. Tally tried to return it, but something shifted in her stomach as she looked at Shay's face. The five Cutters were undercover tonight, black irises hidden under dull-eyed contacts, cruel-pretty jaws softened by smart-plastic masks. They had turned themselves into uglies because they were crashing a bash in Cleopatra Park. For Tally's brain, it was way too soon to be playing dress-up. She'd only been special a couple of months, but when she looked at Shay she expected to see her best friend's new and marvelous cruel beauty, not tonight's ugly disguise. Tally angled her board sideways to avoid an ice-laden branch, breaking contact. She concentrated on the glittering world, on twisting her body to slip the board among the trees. The rush of cold air helped her refocus on her surroundings rather than the missing feeling inside herself -  the one that came from the fact that Zane wasn't here with the rest of them.

"One party-load of uglies up ahead." Shay's words cut through the music, caught by a chip in her jaw and carried through the skintenna network, whisper-close. "You sure you're ready for this, Tally-wa?"

Tally took a deep breath, drinking in the brain-clearing cold. Her nerves still tingled, but it would be totally random to back out now. "Don't worry, Boss. This is going to be icy."

"Should be. It is a party, after all," Shay said. "Let's be happy little uglies."

A few of the Cutters chuckled, glancing at each other's fake faces. Tally became aware again of her own millimeters-thick mask: plastic bumps and lumps that made her face zitted and flawed, covering the gorgeously spinning web of flash tattoos. Uneven dental caps blunted her razor-sharp teeth, and even her tattooed hands were sprayed with fake skin.

A glance in the mirror had shown Tally how she looked: just like an ugly. Ungainly, crook-nosed, with baby-fat cheeks, and an impatient expression - impatient for her next birthday, the bubblehead operation, and a trip across the river. Another random fifteen-year-old, in other words.

This was Tally's first trick since turning special. She'd expected to be ready for anything now - all those operations had filled her with icy new muscles and reflexes tweaked to snakelike speed. And then she'd spent two months training in the Cutters' camp, living in the wild with little sleep and no provisions.

But one look in the mirror had shaken her confidence.

It didn't help that they'd come into town through the Crumblyville burbs, flying over endless rows of darkened houses, all the same. The random tedium of the place she'd grown up in gave her a sticky feeling along the inside of her arms, which wasn't helped by the feel of the recyclable dorm uniform against her sensitive new skin. The manicured trees of the greenbelt seemed to press in around Tally, as if the city were trying to grind her down to averageness again. She liked being special, being outside and icy and better, and couldn't wait to get back to the wild and strip this ugly mask from her face.

Tally clenched her fists and listened to the skintenna network. Fausto's music and the noises of the others washed over her - the soft sounds of breathing, the wind against their faces. She imagined their heartbeats at the very edge of hearing, as if the Cutters' growing excitement were echoing in her bones.

"Split up," Shay said as the lights of the bash grew close. "Don't want to look too cliquey."

The Cutters' formation drifted apart. Tally stayed with Fausto and Shay, while Tachs and Ho broke off toward the top of Cleopatra Park. Fausto adjusted his soundbox and the music faded, leaving only rushing wind and the distant rumble of the bash.

Tally took another nervous breath, and the crowd's scent flashed through her - ugly sweat and spilled alcohol. The party's dance system didn't use skintennas; it blasted music crudely through the air, scattering sound waves into a thousand reflections among the trees. Uglies were always noisy.

From her training, Tally knew that she could close her eyes and use the merest echoes to navigate the forest blind, like a bat following its own chirps. But she needed her special vision tonight.

Shay had spies in Uglyville, and they'd heard that outsiders were crashing the party - New Smokies giving out nanos and stirring up trouble.

That's why the Cutters were here: This was a Special Circumstance.

The three landed just outside the strobing lights of the hoverglobes, jumping off onto the forest's floor of pine needles, which crackled with frost. Shay sent their boards up into the treetops to wait, then fixed Tally with an amused stare. "You smell nervous."

Tally shrugged, uncomfortable in her ugly-dorm uniform. Shay could always smell what you were feeling. "Maybe so, Boss."

Here at the party's edge, a sticky bit of memory reminded her how she always felt arriving at a bash. Even as a beautiful bubblehead, Tally had hated the trickle of nerves that visited whenever crowds pressed in around her, the heat of so many bodies, the weight of their eyes upon her. Now her mask felt clingy and strange, a barrier separating her from the world. Very unspecial. Her cheeks flashed hot for a second beneath plastic, like a rush of shame.

Shay reached out to squeeze her hand. "Don't worry, Tally- wa."

"They're only uglies," Fausto's whisper sliced through the air. "And we're right here with you." His hand rested on Tally's shoulder, gently pushing her forward.

Tally nodded, hearing the others' slow, calm breaths through the skintenna link. It was just like Shay had promised: The Cutters were connected, an unbreakable clique. She would never be alone again, even when it felt like something was missing inside her. Even when she felt the lack of Zane like head-spinning panic.

She plunged through the branches, following Shay into the flashing lights.

Tally's memories were perfect now, not like when she'd been a bubblehead, confused and muddled all the time. She remembered what a big deal Spring Bash was for uglies. The approach of spring meant longer days for tricks and hoverboarding, and lots more outdoor parties to come.

But as she and Fausto followed Shay through the crowd, Tally felt none of the energy she remembered from last year. The bash seemed so tame, so listless and random. The uglies just stood around, so shy and self-conscious that anyone actually dancing looked like they were trying too hard.

They all seemed flat and artificial, like party extras on a video wall, waiting for the real people to arrive.

Still, it was true what Shay liked to say: Uglies weren't as clueless as bubbleheads. The crowd parted easily, everyone sliding out of her way. However zitty and uneven their faces, the uglies' eyes were sharp, full of nervous stabs of awareness. They were smart enough to sense that the three Cutters were different. No one stared for too long at Tally or realized what she was behind her smart-plastic mask, but bodies moved aside at her lightest touch, shivers playing across their shoulders as she passed, as if the uglies sensed something dangerous in the air.

It was easy seeing the thoughts ripple across their faces. Tally could watch the jealousies and hatreds, rivalry and attraction, all of it written on their expressions and in the way they moved. Now that she was special, everything was laid out clearly, like looking down on a forest path from above.

She found herself smiling, finally relaxing and ready for the hunt. Spotting party-crashers was going to be simple.

Tally scanned the crowd, searching for anyone who seemed out of place: a little too confident, overmuscled, and suntanned from living in the wild. She knew what Smokies looked like.

Last fall, back in ugly days, Shay had run away into the wild to escape the bubblehead operation.

Tally had followed to bring her back, and they'd both wound up living in the Old Smoke for a few long weeks. Scrabbling like an animal had been pure torture, but her memories came in handy now. Smokies had an arrogance about them; they thought they were better than people in the city It took Tally just seconds to spot Ho and Tachs across the crowded field. They stood out like a pair of cats gliding through a waddling flock of ducks.

"You think we're too obvious, Boss?" she whispered, letting the network carry her words.

"Obvious how?"

"They all look so clueless. We look...special."

"We are special." Shay looked back at Tally over her shoulder, a grin playing on her face.

"But I thought we were supposed to be in disguise."

"Doesn't mean we can't have fun!" Shay suddenly darted away through the crowd.

Fausto reached out and touched Tally's shoulder. "Watch and learn."

He'd been special longer than she had. The Cutters were a brand-new part of Special Circumstances, but Tally's operation had taken the longest. She'd done a lot of very average things in her past, and it had taken a while for the doctors to strip away all the built-up guilt and shame. Random leftover emotions could leave your brain muddled, which wasn't very special. Power came from icy clarity, from knowing exactly what you were, from cutting.

So Tally hung back with Fausto, watching and learning.

Shay grabbed a boy at random, yanking him away from the girl he was talking to. His drink sloshed onto the ground as he started to pull away in protest, but then he caught Shay's gaze.

Shay wasn't as ugly as the rest of them, Tally noticed, the violet highlights in her eyes still visible even through her ugly disguise. They glittered like a predator's in the strobe lights as she pulled the boy closer, brushing against him, a flex of muscles gliding down her body like a flick through a rope.

After that, he didn't look away again, even as he handed off his beer to the random girl, who looked on open-mouthed. The ugly boy placed his hands on Shay's shoulders, his body starting to follow her movements.

People were watching them now.

"I don't remember this part of the plan," Tally said softly.

Fausto laughed. "Specials don't need plans. Not sticky ones, anyway." He stood close behind Tally, his arms around her waist. She felt his breath on the back of her neck, and a tingle started moving through her body.

Tally pulled away Cutters touched one another all the time, but she wasn't used to that part of being a Special. It made her feel even stranger that Zane hadn't joined them yet.

Through the skintenna network, Tally could hear Shay whispering to the boy. Her breathing deepened, though Shay could run a klick in two minutes without breaking a sweat. A sharp, unshaven sound sliced through the network when she brushed her cheek against the boy's, and Fausto chuckled when Tally flinched.

"Relax, Tally-wa," he said, rubbing her shoulders. "She knows what she's doing."